One of the early treats of Macworld this year is the release of a new Skype beta which boasts some big improvements over the existing stable release. The beta was demoed during ShowStoppers yesterday at the Macworld trade show, and released today for public download. Among the improvements it brings are a few entirely new features, which, for now at least, can be found exclusively on the Mac platform.
As is usually the case, this latest update brings improvements in audio and video call quality as well. I found that incoming audio was definitely improved, and outgoing seemed to be better as well, although it was hard to tell because I was using my MacBook’s built-in microphone, which probably wouldn’t show as significant gains as, say, a high quality USB mic. Likewise, video did seem improved, but it was hard to tell how much using my MacBook’s internal iSight cam.
The big news about the beta are the new features introduced. Screen Sharing is one such feature. iChat users will be familiar with it, but Skype’s implementation does feature some interesting differences. For one, you don’t replace the other user’s screen with your own. Instead, it replaces your video feed. This means you can share with users on other platforms, although they can’t show you their desktops as of yet. You can also opt to show either your full screen or just a portion. This is obviously a great tool for people doing tech support or tech demonstrations, and just plain cool for those of us who like showing off.
Another new feature is Skype Access, which enables another way to use Skype when you’re out and about. Specifically, it allows you to connect at any Boingo Wi-Fi hotspot, directly through Skype, in order to make calls. Since it’s a Skype only connection, you won’t be charged the normal Boingo rate. Instead, you’ll be charged on a per minute basis for calls, the cost of which (around 20 cents a minute) will come out of your balance of Skype credit. Since Boingo has over 100,000 hotspots in the U.S., that’s a significant extension of Skype’s operating capability.
The last big new feature is Mood Message Chat, which keen users will immediately recognize as a built-in Twitter-type client. Just like with Twitter, users can post their mood messages in a chat window interface and see the messages of their friends as they update in the same window. Of course, not everyone is using mood messages as though it were Twitter, so it can be aggravating to see clutter like iTunes tracks clogging up the stream. Luckily, you can choose not to follow specific contacts just by right-clicking on their name and deselecting the follow option.
There are other new goodies like chat prioritization and contact notes, and in general the 2.8 beta seems to just be better overall than 2.7. Plus, you’ll be able to gloat to your Windows and Linux friends for a little while longer that your Skype is better than theirs, so that’s reason enough to go download it.